April 12, 2003
I was reading the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated yesterday, which includes an article chastising Tiger Woods for not being more involved in the effort to get Augusta National Golf Club to admit a woman member.
Going over the article, I couldn't help but think of the controversy surrounding the Hall of Fame's decision to cancel festivities celebrating the 15th anniversary of the release of "Bull Durham." Hall president Dale Petroskey called off the event, citing the anti-war views of stars Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, and the possibility that the two would turn the ceremonies into a platform for their opinions.
There's no defending Petroskey's actions. Nothing the two actors might have done this weekend could possibly have brought as much approbriation on the Hall of Fame as his decision did. It was small-minded and cowardly, and did exactly the opposite of what he supposedly intended: politicizing a non-political event. It wasn't "censorship," as some have claimed, but it was a serious error in judgment that should cost Petroskey his position.
What I've found more interesting than the specific debate is an underlying theme in it--the idea that Robbins and Sarandon should just keep their mouths shut, that the world doesn't need to hear the political opinions of actors and athletes. That's in sharp contrast to the SI piece, which implies that Woods is obligated to use his fame in an effort to affect social change. The criticism of Woods is similar to the charges leveled in the past at Michael Jordan, another wildly successful African-American athlete who hasn't been the agent for social change that some people have expected him to be. Woods and Jordan have often been criticized for not being Arthur Ashe or Jim Brown or Jackie Robinson.
Of course, Woods has expressed an opinion on the Augusta matter. When the controversy broke, he made two public statements on the matter, both effectively saying the same thing: it'd be nice if Augusta National would admit women, but it's their decision whether to do so or not. He hasn't wavered from that, despite considerable media criticism, most notably from The New York Times, which called for him to skip The Masters tournament.
See, it's not that we don't want public figures--entertainers and athletes--to have political opinions. It's that we want them to have the right ones, and when they don't, they simply become cannon fodder. Social consciousness is good, as long as it tends toward the kind of mainstream things everyone can get behind. Curt Schilling can be political in writing an extended letter in the wake of September 11, because he said the right things. Manhattanville basketball player Toni Smith, however, is roundly criticized for her political protest, turning her back on the flag during the national anthem, just as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was a decade ago.
MLB can wrap itself and its personnel in the flag, with no regard to what level of support that decision has within the game. There are 750 active major-league players, and they come from any number of social, economic, political and religious backgrounds. How many of them disagree with the path the world has taken, and are uncomfortable with being used as billboards? Do any of them silently seethe as their workplace becomes a rally for a government they disagree with?
We may never know. Jim Bouton made observations 30 years ago in Ball Four about the pressures within the game to conform to mainstream thought, and little has changed. Players don't have to look far to see that there's little to be gained in going against the grain. Inside baseball and out, the dangers of expressing the wrong opinions are clear. Al Campanis and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder lost their jobs for doing so, while Reggie White is still known as much for the bile he spilled at the Wisconsin statehouse as for his feats on the field. The Dixie Chicks became a lightning rod for criticism after lead singer Natalie Maines made a comment critical of President George Bush during a concert.
I don't mean to defend these opinions, any more than I wish to defend Dale Petroskey. I only want to point out that the line we ask public figures to toe is a very, very, thin one. The controversies that erupt say as much about that line, and about the media, as they do about the ideas being expressed and the people expressing them.
I can't proffer a solution here, and I won't pretend that 500 words on the topic is going to change the world. I reach back to something I wrote about baseball a few years ago:
"Follow the game, watch the game, enjoy the game, learn the game. Then question everything you read about the game, because that's the way the coverage, and eventually the game itself, gets better."I didn't think about it at the time, but I guess that statement applies to more than just baseball.